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Romea: Countering Stereotypes and Building Bridges through Media and Education

Tereza Bottman | Posted September 5th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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“Our colleagues in journalism, as much as we, are still looking for a way to write about the Roma and about Roma-related issues in a way that is not too ethnic; in a way that is not colored by various prejudices and stereotypes,” says Jarmila Balážová, co-founder and chair of Romea Civic Association, a Romani media and education organization.

“It is not at all easy to do,” she elaborates. “”It has only been since (the Velvet Revolution in) 1989 that Czech journalists have been writing about the minorities. Even we are guilty of stereotyping sometimes, for instance, when we want to balance out a negative image of the Romani minority that continues to prevail in the Czech media. So sometimes we emphasize the ethnicity of a personality when it should not be done. But we do it to spread the word that Roma exist who are not known, and who, for example, represent this country on a national level in sports.”

Jarmila Balážová is a woman in demand; a woman with charisma, vision and an uncanny amount of energy. She is an award-winning journalist and the driving force behind a number of programs and publications, including Czech Radio’s Romani radio broadcast, “O Roma vakeren,” which she founded and the Romani monthlies Amaro Gendalos and Romano voďi, of which she is editor-in-chief. Balážová is also a producer at Czech Radio 6, the former broadcasters of Radio Free Europe in Czech.

[Jarmila Balážová, photo credit: Romea]

Balážová established Romea in 2002, along with a group of others, following a training of young Romani journalists, offered by the Dženo Association. Zdeněk Ryšavý, who is now the executive director, was also one of the co-founders.

Romea’s mission is to “motivate and involve predominantly young Roma in civic life as well as to contribute to better relations between the minorities and the majority population in the Czech Republic.”

Romea runs a press service as well as an internet news server, which reports on events from the world of the Roma, and is, according to Romea’s annual report, currently the country’s most-visited Romani server. The server regularly broadcasts TV news reports on ROMEA.tv in both, Romani and Czech language. The monthly Romano voďi, which Romea publishes, provides coverage of current events from the world of the Roma as well as articles on Romani literature, music, history, language. A portion of the magazine is directed at young Roma, who can find pages that profile active and successful Roma and a two-page section “Through Our Eyes” focusing on “youth” themes. Romea also produces “10 Minutes”, a talk show which profiles interesting Romani guests.

I had the opportunity in late August to talk with Ryšavý and Balážová at their office about their work and Romea’s role in the Czech media landscape.

“I think that the vast majority of the media, in fact nearly all media, continue to reinforce various stereotypes concerning the minorities,” maintains Balážová. “I must say that some media do it less, others more. A huge difference can be seen between those who have been dedicated to these issues long-term, using an analytical lens. The result depends on who is writing and who is in the leadership at the particular media outlet.”

When asked to discuss the mission of Romea, Balážová explains that providing information, but also monitoring the press for factual accuracy are some of the key roles her organization plays.

“We bring information to the Roma themselves,” Balážová says. “Our role rests in that we think that if the Romani community is not well informed, the members will not be very politically engaged; that they will not be able to defend themselves well. That is the reason we provide information. And we write about notable personalities for a more balanced (public image of the Roma).”

“We also try to bring opinions of the Roma on the issues, because white Czech journalists never or seldom ask Roma for their opinions,” continues Balážová. “If it weren’t for us at Romea, who put in the effort and approach a number of Roma to obtain their commentary so that Czech News Agency and others can use them as sources, the angle would never change.”

“I get very upset,” chimes in Ryšavý, “when we have to correct journalists when they write nonsense they don’t doublecheck. They go somewhere where conflict is occurring and usually ask only those from the side of the white Czechs. That has happened to us many times. And the way the articles are framed because only the whites are asked, makes the Roma instantly into the perpetrators. Then when we collect quotes by the Roma and contact newspapers, asking them to include this information, they usually write us back that their organizations are objective, that they could not interview any Roma because they could not find any. That is absolute nonsense.”

When asked what he finds most rewarding about his work in Romani media, Ryšavý says he enjoys introducing successful Roma to the public. “It is interesting,” he reflects, “that these types of articles are not of interest to majority media outlets. In general, the media write about what is wrong, not what is positive. We try to correct that by trying to place articles with a positive spin in mainstream media.”

Balážová says that occasionally positive coverage does appear, especially on Czech Television, and especially about children. She, however, points out that Roma-related topics are often viewed as their own separate domain.

“Often both, the public and the journalists, understand Romani-themed issues to be separate from the rest,” Balážová explains. “When the issue is something that has to do with discrimination, exclusion, stealing or looting, Roma will be written about. But when it is something that is unexpected, for instance help is provided to flooded communities by the Roma and not just along ethnic lines, there is not too much interest.”

“I think it is the main weakness of Czech media,” Balážová asserts, “that they perceive the Roma divided from Czech society and not part of it. This idea tends to always be emphasized.”

Regarding dreams for the future, Balážová jokes: “World peace.” But then gets more serious, describing how over the last eight years of its existence, Romea has always struggled with funding and has had to rely on volunteers, in addition to the core paid staff.

Balážová explains that, even at the price of getting funding cut, her organization is critical. Because of that, she says, they have gotten “smacked across the fingers regarding taking on new projects,” as she calls it.

“The nonprofit sector is very much affected by this phenomenon,” Balážová continues. The Romani organizations which are dependent on state funding, she says, “will not do anything that could go against the government or some politicians, who are offensive or anti-Roma. Our experience is that a whole lot of Romani nonprofit organizations, which are effective, which have lots of money, because they know how to apply for it, because they are well-established, will not ever join any demonstration or protest at all, even in support of Natalka (the two-year-old Romani victim of a molotov cocktail attack carried out by neo-Nazis last year).”

“It would be great if we could work in a more or less stable atmosphere,” she says. “It would be great to find partners in the media or other relevant institutions for our educational and media-related projects.”

Ryšavý agrees: “I would like Romea to become more financially stable. Another distant and more difficult-to-achieve goal is that of eventually cutting ourselves off from state finances, to obtain funding from other sources and not be dependent on grants, because that is very binding.”

[Zdeněk Ryšavý]

As a white woman involved in advocating for equal rights for minorities, I was curious about how Ryšavý wrestles with the fact that he is white in an influential role in a minority organization.

“I have an opinion about that,” jumped in Balážová, who is a Roma. “He has been very active working on these issues, so he has already gone through a trial period when some people may have doubted his role here. I have to say that he has never tried to push himself to the foreground, only the last two years he has agreed to appear in the media, but only if I or another Roma from Romea is there.”

“It is exactly the same,” she continues, “as when a Roma has to prove him- or herself in a non-Romani company. In the same manner, a non-Roma must prove himself in a Romani organization. But from the beginning, we have declared, and quite loudly, that we will have non-Roma working here as well. Our mission is to improve mutual relationships, so we have to build on the fact that we can work well together.”

As a white person, closely familiar with issues affecting the Roma, a person like Ryšavý has the unique position of serving as a bridge between the two groups. Ryšavý says he can influence the majority population’s perceptions of the Roma by challenging his white friends when they say prejudicial things and engaging them in a conversation.

“It does work,” Ryšavý explains. “At most you can influence your circle of friends, which is maybe two hundred people. It is possible. But the media influence people’s opinions more.” That is why Romea’s work of bringing information from the perspective of the Roma to the public is so crucial.

Seizing the Opportunity: An Interview with Romani News Anchor Richard Samko

Tereza Bottman | Posted July 27th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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“My work has become my hobby,” says Richard Samko, the second ever Romani news anchor on Czech Television. “The work is colorful and diverse. It’s also an adrenaline rush, and I like that.”

[Richard Samko, photo credit Czech Radio]

Samko has worked in the field of journalism for eleven years as a reporter, news anchor and more recently host of Events and Commentary, a nightly program featuring news analysis and political commentary.

In the late 1990s, the Dženo Association introduced Samko to the world of journalism in a training designed to bring up a new generation of Romani reporters.

Samko is a pioneer, with only Ondřej Giňa, Jr., the first news anchor of Romani background in the Czech Republic, having blazed the trail before him. Samko’s drive, energy and passion for his work in the news media underscore our conversation.

“I stuck with it for years, working my way up, because I wanted to make it far,” says Samko. “The opportunity was something a person gets only once in a lifetime. To get to work in Czech Television is huge; it’s power.”

Samko has covered topics as wide-ranging as immigration, problems inside the police force, right-wing extremism, traffic law, housing issues and unemployment. He has also taken part in producing documentaries, an interest he would like to pursue in greater depth.

One documentary on which Samko collaborated was The Saga of the Roma (Sága Romů), a film examining the changes in the Romani community and its relationship to the majority population during the second half of the 20th century. Samko confesses filmmaking is his dream.

“When I worked on The Saga, filmmaking really grabbed me. I saw that the work was more creative,” Samko recalls. “I then made a few short documentaries myself.”

“I would like to make a film that is Roma-themed,” Samko continues. “I can see that as the most realistic undertaking for me; a topic which I understand the best and can say the most about.”

One of the most powerful aspects of being so visible in the media is Samko’s ability to inspire Romani children, who look up to him as a role model from their own ranks.

Whenever Samko’s hectic schedule allows it, Samko travels to Romani cultural festivals to act as master of ceremonies and to speak to the children.

“I want the children to see a positive example of what is possible to achieve,” says Samko.

One of his projects is a program called Fledglings (Ptáčata), in which a television crew follows a group of second-graders, many of them Romani, as they learn to become camera operators, reporters and news anchors while documenting their own lives.

Samko is a visionary. He recognizes the potential in his community and advocates for the skills of those newly trained in his field to be harnessed. Once funding for Dženo’s Romani station Radio Rota is renewed and the broadcast expanded via digital satellite technology, Samko, who would work with the station in advisory capacity, sees an enormous opportunity for a new generation of journalists.

“Radio Rota should be funded,” asserts Samko, “because it would serve as a base for those who have started on a path towards a career in journalism. There is a potential here that should be developed further. In mainstream television, where I work, there is no time for on-the-job training or mentoring. New journalists have to be ready to start working at a professional level. That’s where media organizations such as Dženo and Radio Rota come in.”

Another role that Radio Rota could fulfill is that of enabling journalists from the majority population to access experiences of the members of Romani community whose issues would be of interest because they ‘affect the entire country,’ as Samko says.

“Mainstream media could draw on the work of Romani journalists reporting for Radio Rota,” Samko continues, “because they tend to be the ones with access to the Romani community, something the average Czech reporter doesn’t have.”

In addition to providing information mainstream journalists could draw on as well as hands-on experience to young Romani reporters, Radio Rota, because the Czech Republic is in the center of Europe, could serve as the heart of Romani newscasting, says Samko.

“Radio Rota could broadcast news programming from around the world,” Samko envisions. “We know journalists in Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, Poland, etc. We know people everywhere. In all these places there are journalists who would contribute Romani-themed programs. The station could be a pan-European showcase.”

To close, Samko urges: “I want my fellow Roma to persevere in doing what they enjoy despite obstacles they may encounter. The opportunities are there. It may take a few years. There will be a few years of waiting, but then the chance to get to a better place will arrive and they will be able to fulfill their dreams.”

“And as far as the majority community is concerned,” Samko concludes, “more tolerance is necessary. There needs to be more room and less judgement of people based on their looks or minority status. Minorities must be given a chance.”

Fellow: Tereza Bottman

the Dženo Association, Czech Republic


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